Over the 18 seasons I’ve had the pleasure to witness Los Angeles Lakers superstar Kobe Bryant perform on the NBA stage, one thing has always been certain in my mind: he is the single greatest individual talent and competitor that I’ve ever had the privilege watching on the basketball court.
Although I always hated how Bryant seemed to always rise to the occasion when it mattered most as an opposing fan, I knew deep down inside that I was being gifted the sight of a player that could transcend the sport like few have before or will after him; a player who can do with a round rubber ball what Houdini could with a straitjacket and chains.
There was the athleticism, but more importantly the utter lack of a hole in his game; he could play lockdown defense, rebound, pass the basketball and bring the intangibles to the court that gave his teammates confidence and swagger.
Oh, and of course, he could score the basketball like few players we’ve ever seen play the sport. Whether it was the 81-point outburst against the Toronto Raptors, the 35.4 points he averaged in 2005-06, the eight seasons in which he topped the 2000-point mark, the stretch of 65, 50, 60, 50 he strung together in a week in ’06-07 or just any of the all-too-common 40-point outbursts in his career, we saw the man put the ball in the basket like few can.
While the Raptors performance will always be one that lingers in the minds of fans, it is another game that should be considered one of the bigger what-ifs in NBA history. On December 20, 2005, the 18-6 Dallas Mavericks entered the Staples Center looking to improve on their impressive early-season success, something Bryant had other ideas about.
Faces in the crowd stood breathless and panting from celebration as through three quarters, the Lakers were leading 95-61 and Bryant had poured in 62 of those, single-handedly outscoring Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavericks’ roster. With the efficiency of his performance (18-of-31 from the field, 4-of-10 from three, 22-of-25 at the line), the question was not if he’d surpass the 81 he torched the Raptors with, but how close he would have gotten to the magical 100.
If 33 minutes could net Bryant 62 points in arguably the prime season of his career, where could he have gotten with an extra nine or 10 minutes that December night?
Whether Bryant returns as the Black Mamba of old or simply as the clutch volume scorer he’s become within this declining version of the Showtime Lakers, he’ll remain one of the few players that always stops a channel-surfing binge. He mesmerizes when that ability should long have disappeared like it has with Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and so many that saw their star rise during the same time.
The league might now belong to LeBron James and Kevin Durant, but both will struggle to leave the imprint of competitiveness, skill and cold-blooded determination that Bryant painted in the NBA history book. Just as the saying goes that there will only be one Mozart, Da Vinci or Beethoven, there will only be one Kobe Bryant.